Revisiting the Park: Stick ’em up!

Richard Carl Lehman

One early spring morning, I joined friends on the way to school and spent the time talking about where we might be in the years to come. Every day was the same so far in life — eat, sleep, go to school and play. We stopped at the store on the way looking for our daily necessary fuel. Outside one of the guys said loudly, “Hey, looky here!” and pulled out a huge Hershey bar from his coat pocket. “It must have fallen there,” he said. He shared it with us co-conspirators and we just laughed it off, wondering if we would have ever done the same thing and justifying that it was a pre-teen prank.

A few years later in junior high, while waiting to see the principal on a slight matter, I sat next to two students who had been caught shoplifting at a neighborhood store. It had been reported to the school and to the parents. One of them had a bored expression and the other cried, “What will my parents do?” I never heard the outcome. Today, a store manager would probably open the door for the shoplifters and tell them to have a nice day as they walked off with a bunch of merchandise.

In the early ’60s, such crimes were dealt with much differently. At Wonder Bread, working as a sales delivery man for seven years and calling on 800-plus stores, I witnessed many innovations for dealing with those who acquired merchandise without money.

Here in Madison Park, Bill and Ada’s Ten Cent store was robbed by a fellow who had found his way into the store after hours several times from a hole in the ceiling. Bill showed me where the bad guy had gotten in, right above the greeting cards. His plan: place the kitchen knives display upright next to the cards. The gentleman landed knees bent onto the knives and had to go to Harborview, where he was caught. No more till money for him. There was an attempt to blow a safe in one of our taverns, but it only chipped a corner of it making it a conversation piece.

A supermarket in the south end of Seattle employed a store manager who was a good guy; he had given me a few favors in sales. While stocking my goods, I watched an insolent shopper with a full cart stop by the frozen foods and lift out a 30-pound turkey. She looked around then dropped it into the bottom of her cart. I followed her to the check stand where she started to pay for her goods saying, “Oh, I don’t have room for this turkey — there’s no room in my freezer”. No questions asked, she was able to purchase all of the other items with the credit. I mentioned it to the manager, who did thank me.

Skid Row (see note) was turning into the present Pioneer Square and the stores there were bought out by chains. A manager was talking with a customer in one of the old Safeway stores. The customer left after giving the manager his shoes (for repair?). No, he was caught stealing wine and was given the choice of having the police called or come back on Sunday when all the chains were closed. The customer could then clean out the boiler and then retrieve his shoes. This was humorous to me, so the manager showed me the back room where there were rows of name tagged shoes.

There was a crime duo of a tall man and blond woman pulling stunts on the wholesale food business and word spread of them in Rainier Valley. When the pair hit Ralph’s grocery on McLellan, Micky the cashier rang up their goods at the checkout. The woman dropped her purse so when Micky leaned down to help her retrieve it, on her way down she slammed the till and broke two fingers on the tall man. Both were arrested. Good going, Mickey!

Sometimes crime was a family or learning event for the young. A mother, a baby in a stroller and two little ones were pulling baby food from the shelves and putting them under the false bottom of the stroller. The next week the same family affair began their endeavor and loudly I said, “Wow, look at Mommy’s little helpers!” The mom looked at me saying two words that were not “happy birthday.” She had been watched and was arrested this time.

These were small crimes but grew in number and many were aimed at the larger cash withdrawals. The major part of my territory was the Beacon Hill and Rainier district areas. I was checking inventory in the various stores and saw the same three guys wandering in. They were not seeking bread, milk and eggs — they were casing spots to rob. My next stop was Johnnies on the then-Empire Way. It was expected that all salesmen use the back door for entrance. As I pulled up, I saw the big Buick with the same three guys. I decided to come in the front door as the owner yelled at me, “Back door!” I yelled, “You’re gonna be held up, you dummy (another word)! Call 911!” He let me in and, in minutes, the law was there. Not John Wayne, but the police did fit the bill. These guys were a group previously hitting the Portland area. The owner thanked me and the police did, too, and said I was lucky as the gang had a cache of weapons in the car. The owner bought me coffee and was nice to me forever after.

Police at that time were hired to keep shopping safe. One guard was tall and seemed to be able to handle himself and sometimes we’d have coffee and exchange incidents. One day he asked if I wanted to get a coffee and when I said yes I noticed he had stitches in his head and one eye was closed. I thought whoever whaled on this guy must have been a giant. He told me he was knocked cold. He had been following an elderly lady who apparently had slipped a large steak down her blouse. My friend stopped her, tapped her shoulder, and as she was bending over, she grabbed a large glass bottle ketchup, swung it over her shoulder, hit him in the head and ran like hell! The two of us and the waitress laughed. He said the academy didn’t teach them how to handle small ladies with a pitcher’s arm.

Well into the ’60s, a store in Madrona called Joe’s Market was robbed by a lone hold-up man with a gun who said, “Money!” The store owner answered in a foreign language with his hands up like he didn’t understand. The crook fired a sizeable hole into the ceiling and Joe answered, “Very well, very well! Here’s the money!”

After two up-close and in-your-face holdups, they were always on my mind. I would call on stores and say, “Can I enter or are you being held up?” That phrase actually caught on amongst the driver salesmen. Eventually, it didn’t matter, as about 90% of driver sales positions were eliminated which devastated many families. They became computerized with the introduction of drop shipments.

So much for the scary life. I became a draftsman illustrator, where the scariest part was driving to and from work.

Note: The term “Skid Road” or “Skid Row,” a slang term for a run-down or dilapidated urban area, was an actual road in Seattle during the late 1800s. The real name of the road was Yesler Way (now better known as Pioneer Square), and it was the main street along which logs were transported. It soon became a rather sketchy stretch of street that loggers began to call “Skid Road.” It also became the dividing line between the affluent people of Seattle and the mill workers. It didn’t take long for the name to catch on and eventually stick. (Source: